How football helped a family heal after tragedy | The Sun
LEAPING from the sofa, Ellie Johnson, ten, wearing her Millie Bright England shirt, whooped with joy as the Lionesses scored a third goal against Australia in the 2023 World Cup semi-final.
Ellie’s little sister Georgie, five, sporting her Georgia Stanway shirt, screamed with excitement too.
“My husband Steve and I realised we’d have to delay our holiday by a day to watch the final,” mum Jo, 37, laughs.
Ellie plays football for the Wyrley Wildcats Under 11s, one of 65 teams in the Wyrley Juniors FC stable in Walsall.
“Steve and I were surprised when Ellie announced, aged four, that she wanted to play football,” Jo says.
“I found Wyrley Juniors, five minutes’ drive away. I messaged their Facebook page, and Keith, the chairman, explained that under FA rules, kids can’t play team football until they’re six, but she could kick a ball around with other little ones at the Wildcats Centre on Tuesday evenings.”
But Jo was nervous about taking Ellie along. Two years earlier, she’d suffered the greatest tragedy any parent can face – losing a child. Grieving, she became depressed and suffered with social anxiety.
“Zachary was born in October 2016,” Jo says. “The pregnancy was fine. I opted for a water birth at our local midwives’ centre.
“But I knew something was wrong. Why wasn’t he crying?
“He was rushed to Walsall Manor Hospital, where a doctor explained that although he’d been resuscitated, he’d been starved of oxygen at birth, suffering brain damage. I dragged myself through the days for Ellie’s sake.
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“People were kind but awkward around me. I felt alone, struggling with grief so raw it was physically painful.
“Then, pregnant with Georgie, born 18 months after Zachary died, people said: ‘You must be excited.’ Excited? I was terrified I’d lose her too.”
With an inquest into Zachary’s death looming, Jo began hiding at home.
“In my bubble I was safe, but the outside world scared me,” Jo says. “So Steve and I took Ellie to her first football session and I fussed over baby Georgie, praying no one talked to me.”
But as Ellie played every week, other parents did talk to Jo.
“Nobody knew my story – to them, I was just Ellie’s mum,” she says. “It was liberating.”
In July 2019, Keith roped Jo into setting up a team for Ellie and her Wildcats cohort, now aged over six.
Then Steve encouraged Jo to join the mums’ team, the Wyrley Warriors.
“You need space for you,” he said. Jo gave in and signed up for training, becoming a defender in the Warriors team in Midweek Floodlit League One.
“I was out of my comfort zone,” she recalls. “Some evenings I couldn’t face going, but I had to show or I’d let the team down. Football became my release.
“Zachary’s inquest was held in 2020. The verdict was devastating as it confirmed he should be here, but we had our justice.
“But, then the Warriors had a match and for that hour, I just focused on the ball.”
Slowly, Jo’s confidence grew – she even began socialising with her fellow Warriors. And the team blossomed.
“We lost every game first and second seasons,” Jo laughs. “But, last season, we finished third in the league.”
Ellie’s team are doing even better. “They’ve won the cup two years in a row,” Jo says. “They started so young, taking the knocks of losing to older teams – now they’re a tight-knit group.”
Wyrley Juniors is one of many clubs across the UK to benefit from £50million of National Lottery funding invested in women’s football over the past decade, boosting the club’s number of female teams to 25.
Who knows – at the 2039 World Cup young girls could be watching Ellie play!
Today, as club secretary, Jo sees first-hand the impact of National Lottery funding.
“We were awarded funding from a programme where every new team gets £100 for balls, cones and strips,” she says.
“In addition to that, National Lottery funding helped build our second site. With a clubhouse and function room, two changing rooms and three pitches, it’s literally a game changer.”
National Lottery players support health projects near you – like Wyrley Juniors FC – through funding aimed at bringing communities together.
The National Lottery is also proud to sponsor The Sun’s Who Cares Wins Awards 2023, which shine a light on Britain’s healthcare heroes, from frontline staff to those who go above and beyond.
Georgie began football training with Wyrley when she was just three. “She’s a great little player,” Jo says.
Not to be outdone, Steve has taken up football with his mates. And Zachary is part of their footballing family.
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“We lit candles at the club to remember him during Baby Loss Awareness Week,” Jo says.
“I’ll never be the person I was before I lost Zachary. But through football, I’ve found happiness.”
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